Sermon for the Sixteenth Suday after Pentecost – September 20, 2020

CLICK HERE for a worship video for September 20

Sermon for the Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost – September 20, 2020

Matthew 20:1-16

Dear friends, grace to you and peace from God our Father and our Lord Jesus Christ.

Some of you have heard me tell the story of the first baptism I ever did. It wasn’t at all what I imagined it would be like in seminary. It was not the baptism of beautiful new baby dressed in a flowing white gown, accompanied by beaming new parents. My first baptism was of an 80-something year old man in a nursing home. His name was Ray, and he was known throughout this small town on the Hi-Line in north central Montana as the embodiment of every negative stereotype of a cowboy. He was a drinker. He was a womanizer. He was a brawler. He was like someone who walked straight out of a Waylon Jennings song.

By the time I met him, Ray was in a nursing home. He knew his life was drawing to a close, and he called for a pastor. We weren’t able to visit much as his health deteriorated, but through the conversations we were able to have it was obvious enough that he was ashamed. He was full of regret for how he had lived his life. Now that it was ending, he was afraid. He asked to be baptized, and so in the little nursing room chapel, using a bowl I had borrowed from the kitchen, I baptized Ray in the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit, washing away a lifetime’s worth of sin. Tears ran down his face as I made the sign of the cross on his forehead and declared that he was a child of God, sealed by the Holy Spirit, and marked with the cross of Christ forever. I buried him just a few days later.

Word of Rowdy Ray’s baptism made its way through town, and the reactions were interesting. Some of my church members’ eyes grew big with surprise. “Really? Ray? Are you serious?” they said. There were also some questions. Questions like, “You mean to tell me that ol’ Ray spent his life honkytonkin’ and whooping it up and he gets all of Christ’s gifts just like that, while I’ve spent every Sunday morning in church since I was a child, I’ve tithed faithfully, I’ve given up plenty of weeknights coming to Bible studies and council meetings? It just doesn’t seem fair.” These questions were mostly asked in good fun, but there was an undercurrent in those questions that smelled a little bit like envy.

I think back to this first baptism I did every time this lectionary reading comes around. We hear in this reading a parable which Jesus introduces as a parable of the kingdom of heaven. Jesus describes a landowner who hired laborers for his vineyard. He hired some first thing in the morning. He hired some more at nine o’clock, and still more at three o’clock. Finally, he hired a few more just before quitting time, at five o’clock. At the end of the day, those who were hired last, who probably didn’t work for more than an hour or two, received the full daily wage. When those who were hired first and had put in a full day under the hot sun came to receive their wages, they thought they would receive more. But they didn’t. They received the same amount. They weren’t being cheated. This is what they agreed to. But it sure didn’t seem fair, and so they grumbled. And the landowner said to them: “Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or are you envious because I am generous?”

Jesus isn’t teaching employment law here. He isn’t teaching us how to run a business. Fairness in the civic realm is indeed important, and there are plenty of scripture passages which attest to this. The Lord Jesus himself in other places says that workers should be worthy of their wages and shouldn’t be cheated but treated fairly, a sentiment that is echoed again and again in the letters of Paul. So Jesus isn’t prescribing some kind of economic system here. As Jesus himself says, this is a parable about the kingdom of heaven. He is teaching us how God deals with us. And the truth is, God doesn’t deal with us fairly!

That might be jarring to us, but think about it – is that what we really want? Do we really want God to be fair? Do we really want God to give us what we deserve? Do we really want God’s justice applied to us? Be careful what you wish for, my friends. Because scripture teaches us that all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God. Do you really want to get paid according to what you deserve? Do you really want those wages? Because the scriptures tell us: “The wages of sin is death.” (Romans 6:23) Thankfully, God doesn’t give us what we deserve! That’s what this parable is all about!

Jesus concludes this parable by saying that the last will be first, and the first will be last. What could this mean? It means that those who come to him with nothing, with no claims to righteousness, with no expectations of rewards, with no illusions of having earned their way, those are the ones who receive the kingdom first, because they have no choice but to receive this kingdom for the gift that it is. On the other hand, those who come with a timecard of hours served, thinking they’ve earned their way in, thinking they deserve their place, are going to be too full or arrogance and envy to receive this kingdom. It isn’t until you lay those timecards and trophies down that you can receive this gift. It isn’t until you admit you are last that you will find yourself at the front of the line.

God isn’t fair. God is something better than fair. God is generous. God is gracious.

The trial that Jesus endured wasn’t fair. He didn’t get a fair hearing. It wasn’t fair when he was crucified for our sins. But he endured that long day for our sake because he is God’s generosity in human form. He is grace in the flesh. He did all the work necessary for our salvation. And because of him, when we show up a day late and a dollar short, God doesn’t give us the wages we deserve. Instead, God gives us everything Christ has earned for us. He gives us all his wages, all of his benefits. He gives us the kingdom of heaven.

This isn’t fair. It is something better than fair. This is God’s generosity. It is God’s freedom to do what he wants with what is his. It is God’s graciousness. Let there be no enviousness among us because God is generous. Let there be gratitude rather than grumbling. For the very same generosity God has shown towards Rowdy Ray is given to you and me. And we need it too.

Thanks be to God. Amen.

Rev. Jeffrey R. Spencer

Oak Harbor Lutheran Church



Attendance will be limited to 40 people. You will need sign up ahead of time. Please call the church office (360-679-1561) to sign up. If a service fills up, you can sign up for a subsequent Sunday.

You must wear a mask. If you are unable or unwilling to wear a mask, please continue to worship online or at our drive-in service. Presealed communion elements will be placed on your chair before the service. You may briefly pull down your mask to take communion.

If you are sick, you must stay home. Please take your temperature Sunday morning before church. If it is higher than 100.4, you must stay home. If you have a frequent cough, difficulty breathing, chills, muscle pains, sore throat, recent loss of taste or smell, or if you or someone you live with has been diagnosed or exposed to COVID-19, you must stay home.

You must maintain 6’ of social distancing. Procedures to ensure proper distancing include: entering by one door and exiting by another (these will be well marked); no more than two people in a bathroom at the same time, with distancing in the hallway should there be a line; worshipers will be dismissed from the sanctuary by name, beginning from the back; visiting will take place outdoors in the parking lot.

Also note that all music will be instrumental and/or sung by a cantor. If you want to sing you are encouraged to attend the drive-in service.

These are far from ideal circumstances for worship and Christian community. We are all missing our familiar routines and we look forward to the day when we can go back to gathering and worshiping like we used to. In the meantime, however, we will follow these procedures out of an abundance of caution, concern for the health of others, and love for our neighbors and especially our fellow church members. Thank you!



Here is our schedule for this Sunday:


(Reservations and a briefing on protocols required to attend. Please call 360-679-1561 if you would like to come to this service.)


You are invited to join us, either live, or on demand. Download the bulletin here: OnlineWorshipBulletin27SEPT20




As you arrive, you will receive a bulletin and presealed communion elements. These items will be handled with utmost care, and distributed by volunteers with masks and gloves. If you are uncomfortable with that level of contact, you are welcome to print your own bulletin (available above) at home or view it on an electronic device and refrain from Holy Communion.

Because of the relaxed guidelines, particularly for outdoor services, know that now you also may enter the church building to use the restroom. You may also have your window rolled down during the service. Whenever you are out of your vehicle, you must wear a mask and maintain 6′ of social distancing.

Sermon for the Fifteenth Sunday after Pentecost – September 13, 2020

CLICK HERE for a worship video for Sunday, September 13

Sermon for the Fifteenth Sunday after Pentecost – Sept. 13, 2020

Matthew 18:21-35

Dear friends, grace to you and peace from God our Father and our Lord Jesus Christ.

The basic meaning of the parable this morning might be obvious to most of us, but with its ancient setting amongst kings and slaves and its dealing in the obscure currency of talents and denarii, I think is easy for us to keep this parable at arm’s length. We might understand the meaning well enough, but it doesn’t quite go to work on us in the way it would have gone to work on Jesus’ original listeners. So what I’d like to do this morning is recast the parable in a contemporary setting. What follows is fiction, but any similarity to actual persons, living or dead, or to actual events, is entirely intentional.

Once upon a time, a man knelt before his King. He was at the altar at Christ the King Lutheran Church, about to receive Holy Communion. Earlier in the service, when they sang the Kyrie Eleison, although it had been awhile since he had been in church, he didn’t even need to look at the bulletin to know what to sing. He had sung it thousands of times: “Lord, have mercy.” He sang it with conviction. He knew his great need for Christ’s mercy. It had been a rough few months, and most of it was his fault. He had been unfair with a colleague, and things had been tense at work ever since. He had been impatient with his kids. He even gave the finger to a motorist who cut him off, which felt good in the moment, but had him feeling embarrassed and ashamed in the days following. He was painfully aware of his need for Christ’s mercy that morning. It was what got him out of bed and into church that day.

Now he knelt at the altar at Christ the King Lutheran church. The pastor put the bread in his hand and said, “This is the body of Christ, given for you.” The assisting minister came next. He took the little cup of wine as she said, “The blood of Christ, shed for you.” He felt the warmth of the wine go down his throat and spread into his heart. He felt a weight lift off his shoulders, brought on by the wonder and joy of knowing he was entirely, completely forgiven. He was surprised by the sudden pooling he felt in eyes as he was overcome with emotion at the thought of what Jesus did for him in order to cancel his debt. It had come at a great cost, an incalculable cost: the cost of Christ’s precious body and blood, given for him.

As he left the sanctuary, he noticed a Boy Scout selling popcorn. He remembered how last year his order was shorted. The kid messed up the order and never did get him his white cheddar popcorn, which was his favorite. He wouldn’t let that happen again. He ignored the boy and glared at the mother and made a mental note to email the pastor to complain about things being sold in the fellowship hall.

When he got home, he saw his wife’s crafting supplies strewn all over the coffee table, right where he wanted to prop up his feet while he watched the game. He barked at her about it. He thought to himself, “I must have asked her at least a hundred times to pick this stuff up.” Right above him on the living room wall was an art print with St. Paul’s words from First Corinthians which read, in part, “love keeps no record of wrongs.” It had been a wedding gift.

He decided he’d relax a bit by surfing the internet. He came across a political post he didn’t agree with. It wasn’t the first from this Facebook friend of his. But rather than trying to understand where he was coming from, or simply scrolling past it, even quietly unfollowing him, he clicked the angry face emoji and left a snide, self-righteous comment.

By the time he went to bed that night, all the peace and joy he’d received at the altar at Christ the King Lutheran Church was gone. He felt like he was back at square one. He had a hard time falling asleep. To calm his mind, he prayed the Lord’s Prayer. When he got to the part that says, “Forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us,” the words caught him. He didn’t even finish the prayer. He just let those words sit on his heart.

Then he heard a voice speaking to him. It was the voice of his King. The voice said: “Is this really how you want to live? In unforgiveness, in ungraciousness, so lacking in mercy? How is that working out for you? If you insist on living that way – as a bean counter, holding the sins of others over their heads – I’ll let you, but know that if you live that way you’ll always be right back at square one. You’re always going to be lying there, tortured by your own sins. You’re going to be stuck in your debt.”

The King continued, “I knew you would struggle with this – with forgiving as I have forgiven you, with being a gracious, merciful person. That’s why I included it in the prayer I taught you. So keep on praying it. Then come back to my altar next Sunday and let’s try this again.”

The end.

The parable we hear this morning provides us with both a warning and a promise. The warning is that if we insist on living in unforgiveness, in ungraciousness, lacking in mercy, Christ will let us. If we insist on keeping score, he’ll let us play that game – but we need to know that it won’t end well for us. This does not mean we never hold people accountable. It doesn’t mean turning a blind eye to grievous sin that harms others. It doesn’t mean abolishing the law. But it does mean loving others with the kind of love we ourselves have received from our King. It does mean extending the mercy and the forgiveness we ourselves have received at such a great cost. Our Lord Jesus warns us that the burdens we lay on others by our lack of mercy will always end up back on our shoulders.

But there is a promise here too. The most striking thing about this parable is just how merciful the king is! Some scholars have calculated that ten thousand talents is the equivalent of about three billion dollars today. This is how much was forgiven! This is how merciful our King is! He cancels our enormous debt at an enormous cost to himself.

This King of ours abounds in grace. And so whenever you say or sing, “Lord, have mercy,” you can be sure that he has mercy. Whenever you turn to him and confess your indebtedness, he has pity on you, he forgives your enormous debt at the enormous cost of his own body and blood.

This is precisely what this King has done for you today through Word and Sacrament. He has had mercy on you.

Don’t leave that mercy on the altar. Don’t lose sight of it when you leave the church building or when the service is over.

Share it. Live it. Embody it. And then rest in it.


Rev. Jeffrey R. Spencer

Oak Harbor Lutheran Church